General Ratko Mladic’s responsibility during the Bosnian war is now enshrined in case history; reconciliation remains the work of ordinary people in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Last week, General Ratko Mladic’s trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia concluded with Mladic’s conviction on 10 out of 11 counts. Mladic, commander of the army of secessionist Bosnian Serbs during the war of 1992-1995, was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war for his role in leading the war to divide up Bosnia-Herzegovina and annex parts of the country to Serbia.
After his 1995 indictment, Mladic walked free for several years, as long as his protector, Slobodan Milosevic (also under indictment) remained president of Serbia. After Milosevic was arrested in 2000, Mladic went into hiding. He remained free until his arrest in 2011. During this long period, the Serbian government and law enforcement arm made sure not to disturb Mladic. It was only when powerful people in the Serbian security agencies were removed that the government found itself able to hand over the wanted man.
The war left more than half the 4.4 million population of Bosnia displaced, with more than a million people made refugees and another million internally displaced. No more than a quarter of these people ever returned to their prewar homes; the old multicultural Bosnia is no more. Bosnians now live in a hundred foreign countries. In the course of the war, a half million homes were destroyed, and more than 20,000 women were raped. Mladic bears command responsibility for much of this.
These raw figures fail to convey the torment and trauma sustained by Mladic’s victims, who were guilty only of being Muslim or Croat. Imagine living in besieged Sarajevo, where snipers and bombers rained violence on the civilian population for nearly four years. Imagine being one of 6,500 widows from Srebrenica, having lost your husband, son, brother or father. Imagine fleeing from your village in flames, never to return again to your ancient homeland.
For all this and more, Mladic received a well-earned life sentence. However, he was acquitted on a crucial charge: count one, for genocide in six municipalities other than Srebrenica. The municipalities listed notably included Prijedor, the location of Omarska and several other notorious concentration camps. Genocide started in Prijedor three years before it took place in Srebrenica. The numerous mass graves, more than 3,000 non-Serbs killed and the destruction of the multiethnic community in the municipality attest to that.
While the court found that “forced expulsion” was carried out in the six municipalities listed in count one, this apparently did not clear the legal bar to constitute genocide. This will be grounds for appeal by the prosecution, as mass killings, internment and torture — specifically targeted at non-Serbs — was arguably carried out with all the intent required to fulfill the dictates of the U.N. Convention on the Crime of Genocide.
On the whole, the response of Mladic’s victims to the Nov. 22 verdict was satisfaction. On the other hand, the thriving culture of denial among part of the Serb population was expressed by Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb-controlled Bosnian entity Republika Srpska, who said that Mladic will remain a “legend among the Serb people,” and that he “very professionally and patriotically carried out his responsibilities.”
Other Serbs insisted that Mladic had simply “defended the Serb people,” but in fairness, there were civic groups in Serbia that characterized the Nov. 22 guilty verdict as a just one.
These responses demonstrate that the oft-heard statement, that justice in court encourages reconciliation, is a platitude. Reconciliation — and avoidance of further violence — remains the work of ordinary people in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it is a crucial fact that Mladic’s crimes are now enshrined in case history.